WHEN Congress and the administration tackle one of the most
contentious natural-resource issues this fall, they'll have more
than 120 years of history to deal with.
The issue is hard-rock mining in the West, which carries with it
a legacy of old mines that pollute the environment.
"Abandoned hard-rock mines have sterilized rivers and streams,
contaminated drinking-water supplies beyond use, and killed
countless numbers of fish and wildlife," Interior Secretary Bruce
Babbitt said recently.
"We need a cleanup program now," asserts Rep. George Miller
(D) of California, chairman of the House Committee on Natural
Resources. "Water tables, lakes, and rivers are being devastated
by heavy metals and acids from abandoned mines. The longer we wait,
the more costly the damage becomes."
The extent of the problem and what to do about it are subjects
of strong argument. In their recent comments, Mr. Babbitt and Mr.
Miller were responding to a report from the Mineral Policy Center
regarding some half-million mines "that scar the American
landscape" - including the pollution of 12,000 miles of waterways
and 180,000 acres of lakes and reservoirs. The center is a private
research and lobbying group that urges reform of the 1872 Mining
Law, which governs Western hard-rock mining since the time when
equipment consisted mainly of a dusty burro and pickax.
Cleaning up abandoned mines, the Mineral Policy Center's
"Burden of Gilt" report estimates, will cost between $32 billion
and $71 billion. This includes some 50 mines included on the
"Superfund" program's National Priorities List of most dangerous
One such mine is Iron Mountain along the Sacramento River in
California, reportedly the largest source of copper found 300 miles
downstream in San Francisco Bay. Other mines are Clark Fork sites
near Butte, Mont., which could cost nearly $1 billion to clean up,
according to a recent study by Miller's committee.
Industry experts say mine critics are blowing the issue of old
polluting mines out of proportion to force reform of the 1872 law.
"The key question is whether, and the extent to which, any of
these sites pose significant environmental threats," Graham Clark,
senior vice president and general counsel of the Newmont Mining
Corporation, told Miller's committee earlier this summer. "The
answer is that no one really knows. That is why the mining industry
has emphasized that there needs to be an inventory to identify
inactive unreclaimed sites that pose significant environmental or
safety risks. …